WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy remains opposed to buying ship-launched nuclear weapons, even though some in the Pentagon have pushed back.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told House and Senate lawmakers this week forcing surface ships or attack submarines to haul around nuclear-tipped missiles would be feasible but a burden as they have more pressing missions.
The Trump administration planned a Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear program to develop weapons that could be launched from surface combatants or attack submarines. Traditionally, the sea-based leg of the nuclear deterrence triad is sub-launched missiles on ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), whose sole mission is to stay hidden in the depths of the ocean.
The Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request zeroed out the program ahead of the release of an updated Nuclear Posture Review but in coordination with the review’s conclusions.
In some of the first hearings following the budget release, Republicans expressed their concern over the cancelation — and so did the heads of U.S. European Command and U.S. Strategic Command.
EUCOM Commander Gen. Tod Wolters said he wanted the SLCM-N because “having multiple options exacerbates the challenge for the potential enemies against us,” while STRATCOM Commander Adm. Chas Richard wrote in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee “the current situation in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory convinces me a deterrence and assurance gap exists.”
Specifically, Richard said in a later hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, SLCM-N would give the U.S. “a low-yield, non-ballistic capability that does not require visible generation,” as a means of countering the kinds of low-yield nuclear weapons Russia has threatened to use in its ongoing war with Ukraine, for example.
During hearings this week on the Navy’s budget request, Gilday told lawmakers SLCM-N “has been offered as a single-point solution” to manage the tactical nuclear capability of Russia and China.
“There are others to think about, including low-yield nuclear weapons that we deploy right now and had support of the Congress,” he said, as well as non-nuclear deterrent weapons like hypersonic missiles.
Gilday said he wants continued research and development work to support a potential future SLCM-N capability, adding that a “modest” amount of funding would ensure “we don’t lose that capability in the workforce and in our labs that’s actually proceeding at pace right now.”
Based on that effort and more information about Russia’s and China’s nuclear weapons development and fielding, the Pentagon could then “make informed decisions about whether or not we want to invest a significant amount of money in that capability.”
Today, though, he said it doesn’t make sense to rush into procurement of the weapon, given an already too-small and heavily worked fleet.
The attack submarine fleet sits at 50, despite the Navy requiring 66 to 72 boats. These submarines could take on a variety of missions, from lurking close to enemy shores to tap into communications cables or project kinetic or non-kinetic effects ashore to searching the open ocean for enemy submarines. The destroyer fleet is busy working alone or as part of carrier strike groups to provide air defense, surface strike, sub-hunting and other missions across the globe — and they’ll be more strained as cruisers leave the fleet in the coming years.
“Having served on a nuclear-capable surface ship in the late 1980s, that mission does not come without a cost. There is a significant amount of attention that has to be paid to any platform that carries that type of weapon in terms of training, in terms of sustainability, in terms of reliability, in terms of the force’s readiness to be able to use and be able to conduct that mission,” Gilday said.
As Russia increases its submarine activity, including sending submarines across the Atlantic towards U.S. shores, Gilday said the attack submarine fleet is “dealing with a higher threat” than in the late 1980s, when nuclear-tipped Tomahawk missiles were retired from service.
He pointed to hypersonic missiles as a preferable avenue for sea-based deterrence. The Navy is already working with the U.S. Army on a conventional prompt strike hypersonic missile the Army will field in fiscal 2023 and the Navy will field on its Zumwalt-class destroyers in FY25 and its attack submarines in FY28.
Gilday said the ship- and sub-based hypersonic missile efforts are still on track, and that the sea service also requested research and development dollars in its unfunded priorities list — a wish list if more funding were available — for an air-launched hypersonic missile.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.